My latest piece on the unfolding crisis in Syria, published on ABC’s The Drum.
In his first speech in two months, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad once again vowed political reforms while emphasising the need to combat outlaws and extremists.
Assad’s third speech since the Syrian revolt began was perhaps the first real sign that the president sought to empathise with, what he deemed, “legitimate” concerns of protesters. In contrast to previous speeches that were laden with foreign conspiracy theories, Assad toned down the accusations of a US-Israeli plot to destabilise the country, and appeared to address his people directly.
Assad proposed the creation of committees that would investigate the implementation of a new multi-party law and begin a national dialogue with opposition groups. The president also lambasted the country’s high levels of corruption, opened the door to a possible new constitution, and warned of an economic collapse in the wake of the unrest.
A failure to offer specifics of such reforms, however, has left many Syrians righteously sceptical. Within hours of Assad’s speech, protests erupted in the cities of Latakia, Hama, and several suburbs of Damascus.
A multi-party system was first proposed by the regime as a possible reform at the beginning of the protests in March. A month later, Syria lifted a 48-year-old emergency law, only to intensify an army crackdown that the opposition claims has killed over 1,400 people, with approximately 10,000 detained.
The concern for Syrians, and indeed the world, is that Assad’s words appear to contrast sharply with the actions of the state.
As he spoke, Syrian forces continued its operation in the north-west of the country, surrounding villages in order to re-impose control over the restive border region.
The Turkish Red Crescent claims as many as 30,000 Syrian refugees have fled into Turkey, with more still stranded in makeshift camps on the Syrian side of the border.
The week-long military crackdown in the north-west, beginning in the village of Jisr al-Shughour, has sparked an international outcry, including an impromptu visit to Turkey’s Syrian refugee camps by Hollywood star Angelina Jolie.
While refugee accounts speak of unbridled brutality on the part of the Syrian army and a pro-regime Alawite militia, the Shabiha, conflicting reports have emerged of armed groups killing scores of soldiers.
The media blackout in Syria has made it nearly impossible to verify accounts of atrocities, and thus the picture of what is really occurring remains blurry.
Following days of clashes in Jisr al-Shughour, Turkish journalists were allowed access to the village, discovering a story that differed from the accounts of refugees who had crossed the border.
Turkey’s Todays Zaman reports of a town that reeked of blood and smoke, with fresh bodies of scores of beheaded soldiers littered throughout. One soldier’s decapitated head was allegedly paraded around the village by armed opposition militias.
US reports of armed opposition groups in Syria’s north-west have also emerged, with a US official confirming to the New York Times the existence of several, unknown, religious-based militias fighting the Syrian regime.
“We see the elements of an armed opposition across Syria. In the north-west, we see it as having taken over. There are a lot of them.”
It remains unclear who these militias are, and from where they are sourcing their weapons. Islamist roots of such groups are likely, given Jisr al-Shughour’s history as a conservative Sunni village that has long opposed the Assad regime.
Indeed, the village was the source of an Islamist insurgency against the regime of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, in the 1980s.
Both sides appear to be competing for a victim status to justify their own militant actions. The opposition’s inability to reign in armed Islamist groups is providing ammunition to Assad’s rhetoric that an overthrow of his government will lead to chaos.
Assad is particularly stoking the fears of minority Christians, Druze and Alawites – to which his family belongs – of a Sunni Islamist coup driven by revenge and Sharia Law as a means to ensure their support.
In yesterday’s speech, Assad again reinforced the threat of extremist Islamist elements within the country bent on imposing its will upon Syria.
The presence of such armed groups in north-west Syria validates Assad’s warnings, and denies the secular opposition the ability to convince wayward Christians and Alawites to join their struggle.
The Islamist threat is also proving effective in restraining the US from openly declaring the removal of Assad from power. Washington is equally wary of the fragility of Syria’s opposition, and while it is increasing pressure on the regime, it is still maintaining a safe distance to not push Syria into a civil conflict with an Islamist insurgency.
As the US winds down its own operations against Islamist insurgents in neighbouring Iraq, it can ill afford to allow an opening for Al Qaeda and Sunni Islamists in Syria, where Sunnis constitute a majority.
Mounting Western and Turkish pressure on the Syrian regime is more a source of frustration at Assad’s stubborn mismanagement of the crisis, as opposed to any genuine desire to see him overthrown.
Following the traditional path of most autocrats, Assad foolishly believes violence will save his authoritarianism. It appears the Syrian leadership has learnt little from the examples of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Gaddafi. Ruling over a restive population that considers a dictator’s rule illegitimate is doomed for failure. A violent crackdown may buy Assad some time, but the damage to his own credibility as a viable leader is almost irreparable.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak best summarised this view by predicting Assad would only survive a further six months given that he has lost all credibility.
The violent government crackdown has only heightened sectarian tensions between majority Sunnis and the ruling Alawites. With every Sunni protester killed, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist armed groups recruit a dozen more.
Extreme situations are prime recruiting grounds for extremist movements.
To the frustration of Turkey, Assad’s continued violent path is a self-destructive road that will only lead to the downfall of his regime, and Syria. One crucial omission from Assad’s speech was that his own authoritarianism is the key obstacle to the development of Syria.
Few expect a dictator to place the interests of his nation above that of his personal power, but Assad’s blind pursuit of the latter will not save his regime, and only condemn Syria to an unstable future riddled in sectarianism.
Despite the genuine intentions of several within the opposition camp, including human rights activists and secular intellectuals, its inability to prevent the emergence of armed Islamist groups speaks volumes of its fragility. If the opposition cannot reign in Islamist groups in battle with the regime, there is little chance such groups would be stopped should Assad’s regime fall.
International efforts also cannot be relied upon, with Russia and China determined to stop a Libya repeat passing through the UN Security Council.
All the more reason why Assad must act on his promises. If the Syrian leader is to have a political future in Syria and save his country from civil war, he must implement the reforms he has promised. Assad needs to stomach the difficult pill that the reign of autocracy in the Arab world is ending.
There are, thus, only two options for the Syrian president: lead the change, or be swept up in it.